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Roger Kennedy
Roger Kennedy
Orders From France
ISBN: 0812213289
Orders From France
Roger Kennedy talked about his book "Orders From France: The Americans and the French in a Revolutionary World, 1780 - 1820" (University of Pennsylvania Press). In the book he examines the ways in which France's artisans, architects, engineers, and craftsmen influenced Revolutionary America. During this period in American history, Williamsburg, Virginia, was modeled after Versailles, France; Washington, D.C., was designed by French architect Pierre-Charles L'Enfant; and a French engineer designed the intricate New York canal system. Mr. Kennedy talked about the development of the American and French constitutions and the impact of each revolution on world affairs. Character descriptions of influential leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, and Rousseau were also included.
Orders From France
Program Air Date: July 9, 1989

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Roger Kennedy, you have a book out called "Orders From France." Before we talk about the book, why are we hearing so much about France these days?
ROGER KENNEDY(Author, "Orders From France: The Americans and the French in a Revolutionary World (1780-1820)"): They had a revolution 200 years ago, I guess, for starters. Their revolution had an effect upon us, and we have a feeling that our revolution had a little effect upon them. I suppose the major reason is that we and the French have a kind of on-again, off-again romance. We started out, of course, French and Indian wars and burning villages and Deerfield, and every kid who learned American history thinks about those terrible Indians and those terrible Frenchmen burning us up. Nobody paid much attention to us burning them up, I'm afraid, when we were kids. They were then the desperate enemy.

Then during the Revolutionary War, they were our allies in achieving our independence. People like Lafayette and L'Enfant, who laid out Washington, D.C., were our allies and our friends and our heroes. There were more Frenchmen at Yorktown than there were Americans, nearly three times as many French people in the armed forces at Yorktown as Americans. We had a romance that lasted from the end of our war of Independence, 1783, through the first year or two of the French Revolution, when we thought they were going to have a kind of revolution like ours, which is a safe and sane, not too disruptive one. Then it got out of hand, and they cut off their king's head, and Americans were shocked. We hadn't cut off our king's head -- of course, the British had a little earlier, and the French did a little later. But there wasn't a king available to decapitate for us.

So after the French eliminated their king and really had a profound social revolution, Americans of the Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton sort that were really moderate people began -- in differing degrees for each of them -- to withdraw their sense of that affinity to France. Then within a very few years we went to war with France, though we never declared it. Between 1797 and about 1799 we and the French were in an active naval war in the Caribbean and in a really very, very interesting way that we're just beginning to learn about now as archives become available. The story is that the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere was established by the blacks in what is now called Haiti, then San Domingue. They declared their independence and achieved it by their own strength from the French and the Spanish, who had the other end of the island, fought off a British expedition which attempted to put them back both in slavery and in colonial status.

The American government, then led by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, led by the Federalists, most of whom were Northerners and many of whom were not slave owners, that government supported the black government led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, the great hero of Haitian independence. We went to war with France in many ways to defend the sea lanes between us and that second independent republic. American ships fired on French ships, sank a lot of them. We actually battered the shore of Haiti with our naval guns to protect Toussaint's black army. That story, which is almost totally unknown to Americans is, I'm afraid, not so well known to Haitians either because after 1800 a new American government came into power, led by Thomas Jefferson, largely predominated by the interests of Southern slave holders. That government reversed the position of the former American government, cut off aid to Toussaint, entered into an agreement with Napoleon, then in charge of France, that we would not resist if the French sought to reestablish both slavery and colonialism there in the Caribbean, and our American fleet was withdrawn. The French succeeded in landing an immense force led by Napolean's brother-in-law and his sister.

They succeeded in defeating Toussaint and kidnapping him, taking him to die in France, probably starving him to death. The long, desperate decline of the island of Haiti which has led it to being one of the poorest nations in the world today -- it was then one of the richest -- that decline began as a succession of expeditions and military campaigns ravaged that countryside.The part of the story that is both intriguing and in some ways terrible is that the first independent republic in the Western Hemisphere, the United States, and the second, the independent country of San Domingue, now Haiti, did not form a continuing alliance.

If they had, the whole history of independence movements in this country and this hemisphere would have been entirely different, but because we were still very much a slave-holding country, dominated by a government led by Mr. Jefferson, one of our great heroes. Those slave holders simply could not tolerate the presence of a free, black, revolted-slave republic in the hemisphere, so we formed an alliance of a more disagreeable sort at that time with a neocolonial, imperial French government to reimpose colonialism in the Caribbean. That's one of the sorrier periods.

After that the story gets, I guess, a little pleasanter. The French didn't reappear as an imperial power in the Western Hemisphere until another chapter that I guess is in "Orders From France" because I think the story's kind of interesting. After Waterloo, after Napoleon was defeated finally by the British and Germans, his whole staff college from the Battle of Waterloo came to Philadelphia, about 27 colonels and seven or eight generals, intending to invade Texas. The story appears here. It's a kind of a loony story, and they did in fact invade Texas. They were mostly generals, captains, colonels and darn few foot soldiers. But they had the beginnings of a successful alliance with the pirates in the Gulf of Mexico, and these French, very distinguished military leaders succeeded in building three or four forts along the Trinity River, and this is one of the yarns in this book.

At that point, the United States government and the French government were again in alliance but against this collection of freebooting, independent Bonapartists who were trying to reestablish a government in Texas which would serve as the basis upon which they could collect enough money from silver mines and otherwise to go liberate Napoleon from St. Helena, the island in the south Atlantic where he was being held, second period, almost at the end. Third one was during our own Civil War. Most Americans seem to forget that at that point the French reappeared as a colonial power and installed Maximilian as the emperor of Mexico. That was a French operation, not a Spanish one. Poor old Maximilian got left in the lurch by Napoleon III, the emperor of France again in the 1860s when we got through with our own Civil War and Gen. Grant and others made it clear to the French that we wanted no part of the reimposition of a French empire in the Western Hemisphere, so we were almost at the brink of war one more time when the French withdrew, leaving Maximilian to be dealt with by the Mexicans who lined him up against the wall, and a firing squad took care of the last French Western Hemisphere imperial adventure -- telling you a series of stories that show up in "Orders From France."

But we've had these periodic explosive friend -- and foe -- relationships, ultimately of course in World War I. "Lafayette, we are here," said John J. Pershing. We were back in alliance with the French one more time. American Expeditionary Forces in Flanders and in France in 1917-18 were the final force that tipped over the First World War then in a kind of a balanced condition and freed France. Once again in Normandy in 1943-4, Americans freed France one more time. I suppose today the story is that we are once again in a kind of uneasy relationship with Western Europe in general, with the French in particular, in which we confront together what threats we have perceived since the Second World War as common to us all. Western Europe and we share a common apprehension about the intentions of the Russians. Now as the Russians seem to be less fearful, we and the French are of course coming apart again. So it's a terribly long answer. What a nice kind of television program this is that you can give a long answer.
LAMB: Roger Kennedy, you don't write books necessarily for a living. You are the director of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian. How long have you done that?
KENNEDY: Ten years.
LAMB: Why are you doing it?
KENNEDY: Because it's fun. That's an easy one. I believe very strongly in the role of the Smithsonian which is to increase and diffuse knowledge; that's what its charter says. That means we have a franchise to learn about things that interest us; we have a franchise to collect things that tell other people about the things that interest us and may interest other people too. Then, probably more important, we have the responsibility to try to talk to people about it, which is what you and I are doing now. We're are talking about a series of things that are important to the American people, and that's what we do at the museum every day.
LAMB: I've been there many times, but I also pass it almost daily at 14th and Constitution, this huge building. What do we have, 19 million tourists who come to this town every year?
KENNEDY: Yes, 17 to 19 million.
LAMB: How many of those come to see you?
KENNEDY: Six or 7 million. We're almost alone in American public institutions in that we're not fighting for a bigger share of the gate. We're not looking to increase our audience, which is kind of strange --no Nielsens for us. Our situation is that we're probably dealing with about as many people, effectively talking with, in conversations so to speak, imparting whatever it is that we've sought to learn, making available primary artifacts to about as many as we can handle, 20 -- 30,000 on a good, strong day so that what we're engaged in doing now and where the fun is, is to try to do a better job of talking to the American people about their common experience, their history.

It isn't just a matter of objects on a wall with labels next to them or even the famous things that 10 years or even 20 years ago when you and I probably wandered into that kind of place for the first time, it was conventional to go and do the first ladies' gowns or do the Hope diamond or do the Spirit of St. Louis, as if you had a kind of a checklist or a menu and you were going to eat your way through the Smithsonian. That's a pretty dumb way to experience a contemporary museum because what museums, at least our place, is about is narrative; that is, we're about stories. We're about connecting objects by yarns, through yarns that give them some sense either in juxtaposition where two ostensibly unrelated objects really have connections or by putting them together actually in a way that you and I would do if we were telling each other about something we cared about. We would tend to find an object or draw a picture or do something that illustrated what we were doing. So we're in the story-telling business. Traditionally that's what history is anyway.
LAMB: Can you give us an idea of the scope of all this?
KENNEDY: Sure. I think of things that I'm particularly proud of. There's a internationally celebrated, wonderful show about the movement of rural black Americans to the urban North called Field to Factory, which presents a story which happens to be about black people but which we find, and this is kind of interesting too, we find that our visitors who share with each other and with most of the rest of us the experience of having gone from someplace where we grew up and thought we belonged to some other place where we had to make a new kind of life.

Washington is full of people like that. We share that sense of disruption and having to make a new life. If that story is about, it happens, just those blacks who moved from the rural South to the urban North and just before World War II, what happens in that exhibition is that grandparents talk to grandchildren about their own experience of leaving the church and the school and the familiar landscape and the smells and sounds of the country or the small town and moving to some other place where they had to find new churches and new schools and new civic organizations and new beauty shops and new barber shops and a new grocer and getting established. That show therefore is about all of us through being about some of us. I can give you another couple of instances. Shall I keep on going?
LAMB: Let me first ask you, how much money do you spend in a year?
KENNEDY: Good question. We spend about 15 to 18 million bucks a year, of which the Congress puts up 12, 13. This year we'll raise privately from corporations, foundations and a few individuals about that much again, about 10 or 11 million. This is a big year for us. We're doing that because this is the year that we are spending a lot of money trying to engage with the history of science.

One thing we're doing happens to be this thing you and I are doing right now, the information age, what it means to have this enormous mass of information brought to us every day just like this. What are we going to do with all this information? How do we sort it out? What's significant? What is insignificant? What does it mean to Americans if this kind of dazzling profusion of sound bites and info bites reaches them? Advertising, information, news in all these media, what does that do to our sense of what is real and what isn't, and what is real? When kids shoot each other because they've seen so much of violence in television and in the movies, where in the television and the movies nobody hurts, we have a sense that reality is being distorted by this information revolution we're living in.

So we're trying to deal with that in our place. That means that you've got to use a lot of the gear -- cameras and all of the rest of it -- in order to talk about the gear. We also know what this is doing to capital markets; that is, they're destabilized, more volatile than they ever were before. I suppose in innumerable ways reaching right down to the checkout counter at the supermarket where you've got a piece of electronic gear that records what you bought that day could record what you're wearing that day or the color of your eyes. It could be taking a picture of you on your way out there. There are innumerable ways in which information is being collected, transmitted, and it affects us enormously, so we're trying to talk about that.
LAMB: I want to tell the audience that the original reason we invited you here, and there's so much to talk about and we're going to be jumping all over the place, but hopefully our audience will be somewhat intrigued by this book, "Orders From France" by Roger G. Kennedy, a man who has been an NBC correspondent, who has worked in the Eisenhower administration for the Labor and HEW departments.
KENNEDY: Yes, I was in the Department of Justice as a lawyer for a while too, which helped a little with this book.
LAMB: Why?
KENNEDY: Because the book's about us and the French between 1780 and 1820. Us and the French between those two dates were in the process of making a constitution. We made one; we created one. The French made a whole series of them.
LAMB: How many have they had?
KENNEDY: The story I like to think about is Talleyrand in 1848 who had been present in the forming of the French Revolution was then a very elderly gentleman. And a guy saw him coming out of his carriage and he said to him, "Sir," marquis or whatever he was by that time -- "Isn't this the 48th government to which you have sworn final allegiance?" He said, "I believe it's the 49th and I do hope it is the last."

They've had a lot of changes of their mode of governing. We had fewer, but as a lawyer I suppose that one of the chief things that you learn about, as the Supreme Court this very week once again reinstructed us, you learn about the importance of continuities. The notion is that the law is something that lasts longer than opinions do. In the period in which our nation took its current form and the French went through any number of efforts to form a country, continuities were more disrupted even than they were in our time, even more than in the 60s, even more than in other periods of turmoil in our life. The sense of there being something that you could count on was vehemently ripped and torn so that our Founding Fathers and the French founding fathers and mothers had to make something new in the presence of an abyss of the unknown.

They didn't have a set of continuities that carried them through their tough times. They had, in a sense, decapitated a king because they had gotten rid of a king and a parliament and they had to form something brand new. So what we have here is a period of immense courage and immense resourcefulness and, of course, a lot of military adventure, because when the old continuities are disrupted it leaves holes into which brute force intrudes. That's what happens in human society. When the cops aren't on the beat, violence will spread out. When the cops, so to speak in international terms, are not present to sustain an order, what happens thereafter is that innumerable burly people with big ideas will form their own armies, their own fleets pirates, privateers new governments form.

This period, 1780 to 1820, is a period in which ours was a successful adventure. The people who led our revolution could easily have failed. After all, Latin America was a story at that time of people of equal skill there are a lot of stories in that book about Miranda, who was the founder of Venezuela, dismissed by many American historians as an unsuccessful leader, but he had all of the qualities of George Washington and some more too because he had a wonderful sense of humor and he was a pretty good architect, which George Washington was not a terribly good architect, had no sense of humor, very great man. But we tend to look at success, particularly in the city of Washington, and we tend to assume that the successful ones had greater merit than the unsuccessful ones. In the case of the Latin Americans, there are people of immense heroism and great skill, some of whom I've tried to write about in the book, who didn't happen to be successful. Something went wrong. They didn't have, among other things, the allies that the United States did, which takes me back to France, our primary ally.
LAMB: Let me ask you little things about this book. When did you do the work on this book?
KENNEDY: I finished the book called "Architecture; Men, Women and Money" In 1982 or I guess. The idea of that book was that if you're interested in large objects, which I am, buildings, houses and the like, you've got to sort out where the money came from because buildings are expensive. Architecture is a public art. This book has a fair amount about architecture in it too, but in the course of writing that, I came upon a whole series of very interesting characters that didn't make it into big-time history, architects among them, and from '83 to about '87 or so . . .
LAMB: 1983.
KENNEDY: That's right, 1983 to 1987 I was working on that while we were in the course, of course, of reorganizing the museum along other lines, so it was a hobby in a way. It was an opportunity to put together a whole range of things that interest me. I am interested in economics. I've made my living as a banker. I'm interested in continuities in the law, and I'm very interested in American history.
LAMB: How did you write it? Did you write it at home, or did you write it at the office?
KENNEDY: Yes, airplanes. The portable word processor has been, in a way, a boon, I guess.
LAMB: Do you use one of those?
KENNEDY: Oh, yes, sure, on airplanes. That's the only time to edit. The time to write books is at home, I think, between 6:00 and 10:00 in the morning. If you've got secretaries that will keep you covered at the office and tell everybody that you're busy doing something else, you can write books in the morning. The time to edit is on airplanes when you're on your way to make speeches somewhere, because then nobody can find you. The most terrible thing that's happened recently, of course, is that telephones have been installed on airplanes, which is a great heresy.
LAMB: Except they can't call you.
KENNEDY: They can't call you. That's exactly right, but there is always the temptation to call them which you've got to fight off terribly.
LAMB: It's $7.50 for three minutes or something?
KENNEDY: That's exactly right, somebody rich that you're going to call on and reverse the charge. You could have a puckish delight to do that. I've been finding if you're really interested in a subject, if you really, really do like it and you're a little too busy, you will tend to do seven or eight or 10 drafts and you will do them on the beach or in an airplane or in the car if your wife or friend or somebody is willing to drive. That's what you do. I think it would be very hard to write books that try to connect real people to real experience if you were just writing books. I would find that tough because every day somebody comes along in the museum or in my business, which is banking, and says, Gee, I had this nifty idea today, and I've been learning about that. You say to yourself, that's interesting. I wonder how that connects to my subject? So I find the origins of American investment banking is in that book.
LAMB: On the first page, you dedicate this to McGeorge Bundy. Why?
KENNEDY: He's my friend, but he was also my boss for 10 years.
LAMB: Where?
KENNEDY: I was the vice president for finance and then later for the arts as well at the Ford Foundation from 1971, I guess, to '79, and Mac Bundy was my boss. He was also my teacher in that I had the, I guess, the good fortune of getting hit by a truck in Central Park in 1972. I was on my bicycle and the truck was not legally in the park. As a result of that, I wasn't very ambulatory -- broken legs and arms and stuff. That meant that somebody had to drive me to work. Mac Bundy, who was the president of the Ford Foundation, had a car -- that's what presidents have -- so he simply began picking me up and driving me home at night, which would have been very nice all by itself, but then we got kind of used to talking to each other in the morning and evening.

What I got out of that was the greatest course in American contemporary history imaginable because he would be reading the paper and we would talk about what he was reading in the paper and then we would talk about what we were doing in the Foundation which generally had to do with a whole lot of things that were pretty central to American life in the '70s. It was a great adventure. Mac Bundy is the smartest man I ever met. He had been, of course, Jack Kennedy's national security adviser and did the same thing for Lyndon Johnson. As the president of the Ford Foundation he believed, as I do, that philanthropy exists to make a difference, to do things that are not easy and to take on problems that nobody has a franchise on.

And, therefore, for 10 years he taught me first of all a lot about how to look at the world. Secondly, he taught me a lot about how it was possible to do a lot of things even though people told you you were foolish or that somebody powerful wouldn't like it or that the system wouldn't accommodate it. While we struck out at a lot of things, we at least tried a lot of things, and some are successful. So when I got around to thinking about a world in which Founding Fathers with real courage made something new happen that not only started a new country but laid out in the Northwest Ordinance the possibility that you could actually form a whole new society on purpose, rationally, that you could try to do that, I thought, gee, that's the kind of thing that Mac tries to do.

I suppose one further note, we human beings are very fallible. We make a lot of mistakes. We try to learn from our mistakes, but in the founding years, 1780 to 1820, and I think in the Ford Foundation's great period, that is, the 1970s, there was a continuing sense that even though you would make mistakes and even though it was perfectly possible to say, I made a mistake, you keep trying and you keep tackling the tough ones. That's what the Founding Fathers did. So in a way this is a sort of old-fashioned, patriotic book which says, not bad, not bad. We did pretty well. We blew it from time to time, but we did pretty well.
LAMB: Even though it's called "Orders From France", it's about America.
KENNEDY: Yes, it's about us and the French at a period in which we were both representing the pinnacle of the most hopeful period in the modern age, I think. The 18th century was a time in which Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison -- in their very different ways, these are very different people -- all felt that if you put your mind to it and your energy to it and were willing to put your career on the line, you could make a positive difference in human affairs, and so across the water did Brissot and Mirabeau, the leaders of the French Revolution. After them came a lot of bloodier characters, it's true, but there was a moment of hope. It's what I call in the book the Party of Hope. It's the party of people who believe that it is possible to affect human affairs for the better. I continue to think that is true. I don't think that merely acquiescing in the inevitable is a very noble way to live either in this city or in any other city.
LAMB: You write about James Monroe.
KENNEDY: Yes, what a boring man.
LAMB: You kind of messed me up because I was going to ask you a question. If I could find the exact line, you wrote him up as if there was -- and I'm going to get . . .
KENNEDY: You're going to do fine.
LAMB: No, I'm not going to do fine. What I'm about to say, I'm going to get myself in trouble, but it wasn't the boring part. It was a further description of James Monroe that sounded like what some critics say about George Bush.
KENNEDY: Oh, that's interesting.
LAMB: Help me on that because . . .
KENNEDY: No, I'm going to help us both out. Boring meant in this sense . . .
LAMB: You talk about him having a very safe period.
KENNEDY: Absolutely. By boring I meant this: Poor fellow, what would you seem like if you came after George Washington, certainly the most impressive president we ever had -- just taken as that, to say nothing of being an extraordinary war leader and a very wise man; Thomas Jefferson, certainly the most intellectually competent of all of the presidents of the United States in terms of breadth; John Adams, an extraordinary man; James Madison, who was both witty, skillful, shrewd and charming -- you could not dislike James Madison. You really could not, to say nothing of his wife, who was an all-time charmer. Then comes poor old James Monroe. James Monroe's chief virtue was that he had survived successfully the political wars of the state of Virginia. He had been shunted aside by Jefferson and Madison. He wanted to be president eight years earlier, and Thomas Jefferson and Madison saw to it that he wasn't and that Madison was instead. He was the last of the Virginia dynasty. He was very tall, very stately.

I see where you're coming from with respect to this. I would have said he was very well-bred except that he made himself into the appearance of what George Bush doesn't have to make himself into the appearance of being because George Bush was born into being it. James Monroe was a very small farmer's son who made his own way; whereas George Bush was born into a kind of suburban, national haute bourgeois class, to use a French term out of that meaning comfortably well off people who have been comfortably well off for quite a period of time.
LAMB: Let me read a line -- I found it.
KENNEDY: Good for you. You thought if I talked long enough, you'd find that.
LAMB: This may or may not help you. "The so-called era of good feeling over which President James Monroe presided was a time of exhaustion among political factions, of nervous irritability without the release of passion."
LAMB: Then: "No great causes stirred the blood and there seemed to be no further necessities for heroic action. The Founding Fathers had done their majestic work." I guess, based on what we've been reading a lot about the first six months of the George Bush administration and the last eight years ...
KENNEDY: OK. I'll give you a guess. I'm very certain about James Monroe.
LAMB: It doesn't have to be. When I read it I thought I'd ask you.
KENNEDY: Sure. I'm by no means sure about George Bush, but I can offer you a couple of hypotheses about that, fearlessly treading on the 1980s instead of the 1780s. In the first place, my own view is that George Bush has surefootedly found his way through a thicket of difficulties by making it look remarkably easy. This first six months in the age of publicity and celebrity and manufactured stories . . .
LAMB: Who manufactures them?
KENNEDY: The general circumstances in which we find ourselves do. I don't want to use the term the media, except more broadly than television. It includes radio and everything else. Too much information too quickly disposed of, too easily handled by handlers and too easy technically to concentrate and focus produces news events. Under those circumstances it is very easy for a president to go from news event to news event and get very little done. My own sense of it is that George Bush has actually done quite a good deal, and in fact that the build of events, the basis laid is going to be historically viewed as very considerable. After all, the competition is pretty tough competition out there for public attention.

Mr. Gorbachev is one of the masters of the century, maybe of the last couple of centuries. We are dealing with a major figure in world history with Mr. Gorbachev, not just sort of any old Russian leader. That's a tough guy to compete against for the public eye, but it is also true that these events of the last six months are more racking, more startling, more staggering in their changes, almost as staggering as the events of the 1780s to 1820. Dropping a name, George Shultz said to me "I'm sorry, but that can happen in Washington. You can run into the guy in the grocery store."
LAMB: It's normal.
KENNEDY: As I was picking some stuff up at the deli, George Shultz said to me well, he did -- that in his view and that of two or three other people that he had been talking to, like the pope, this was a time in which most of the underpinnings are shifting in China, in Russia, in religious affairs, in many, many circumstances. This is the period in which George Bush, who is not a flamboyant character, becomes president of the United States, following one of the masters of media handling. He is called upon to conduct the affairs of the United States in a way that recognizes change, is not thrown into a tizzy by change, doesn't get into a spastic hold and cannot relinquish past policy. Unlike James Monroe, it does seem to me that George Bush is capable of finding very skillful people, particularly in the State Department, and altering the circumstances he found with great care in ways that are very remarkable in the external affairs of the United States. Can't speak for the internal of the United States, wouldn't anyway, because we're talking about 1780 to 1820.
LAMB: You wouldn't believe how fast time is going, so there's a lot of things to cover. I'd like to get through a number of things quickly. First, your background has led you through all kinds of hallways and territories, including NBC as a correspondent. What were the years on that?
KENNEDY: In the 50s I covered the White House as" I don't know" either second, third or eighth string, depending on how you counted the first other guys. I covered the Supreme Court for a while, did a show called Today, worked on a show called 'Monitor, on radio and produced a batch of things, maybe 12 or 15 documentaries in the 50s and right to the end of the 50s, the beginning of the 60s, beginning of Camelot.
LAMB: Big documentaries that we will remember?
KENNEDY: I worked on Victory at Sea, which I guess some people remember, and some hour-long and hour-and-a-half-long things when the other networks actually took an hour to talk about something serious. We had a wonderful time. It was the beginnings of this business, when all you really had to do was to have a good idea, and it didn't take so much money that it wasn't impossible.
LAMB: Monitor radio -- there's some in our audience, like me, who remember Monitor Radio. Whatever happened to that? Why didn't it survive?
KENNEDY: Because in a commercial system, the notion that you could talk about a story as long as the story merits simply is unacceptable. Some things are worth talking about for, my goodness, four minutes or even six.
LAMB: Or even an hour.
KENNEDY: Yes, miraculously. Well, it's crazy. How are you going to get the commercial bites in there?
LAMB: When did it die?
KENNEDY: We fell off that train. Gosh, I don't remember because the management changed and we all departed in about '58. It may have gone on after that.
LAMB: Oh, it did. I remember.
KENNEDY: We didn't feel it was exactly the same.
LAMB: Before we go back to the book, currently director of the National Museum of American History, but a law degree from Minnesota law school. Undergraduate degree in what from Yale?
KENNEDY: Political science, I guess, something like that.
LAMB: As we said earlier, worked in the Eisenhower administration, the Kennedy administration, even the Nixon administration.
KENNEDY: Yes, off and on. I worked for a while when Mrs. Hobby was trying to sort out what to do about the Salk polio vaccine.
KENNEDY: Yes. I spent a little time on the student loan program trying to organize ways of getting loans to students in the early 70s when Pat Moynihan and Richard Nixon and others were working that program out. I spent some time in the Justice Department working for Warren Burger, who became the chief justice. And Labor Department, I did stuff about migrant farm workers and things for Jim Mitchell, who was then the secretary.
LAMB: For the last 10 years with the museum, but then 10 years with the Ford Foundation. I'm getting to a question, what of all this have you enjoyed the most?
KENNEDY: Oh, always it's the next book you're writing.
LAMB: The book?
KENNEDY: I mean it's whatever it is that you're doing next. Yes, I like writing books a lot. I'm no longer in the political action period in my life. I'm trying to reflect a little bit upon that kind of experience, trying to find ways of making the experience of my own time, life, friends, try to relate that to that of others in the past. I love writing books. I would be unhappy if that were all I were doing. I like very much running what I think is the best museum in the world.
LAMB: How many people work for you?
KENNEDY: I suppose, depends on how you count, 4- or 500. We're very active in the music-producing business. We have a live performance around the place now quite a lot, in February two performances of Ellington alone every day. We are in the jazz business. We are making a lot of records. We are sort of a place that tries to deal with the American experience in contemporary terms, so that's fun.
LAMB: I've got to ask you this. You maybe don't want to answer this, but you hear Nixon and Bundy and Kennedy and Eisenhower and Warren Burger. What's the label we put on Roger Kennedy?
KENNEDY: Oh, I don't know. All-purpose outfielder.
LAMB: No political label? Party?
KENNEDY: No. I ran for Congress once when I was in law school and won a Republican primary. I worked for Jimmy Carter doing various things here and there. I just try to be useful wherever there's a chance to be useful, I guess.
LAMB: What kind of person did you write this book for?
KENNEDY: I wrote that book for myself, for you, for people who have read a little history, don't regard themselves as being history experts, but people who like yarns, who have a visual sense. I think most of us like to ground a theoretical principle or even a story in a particular place. I want to talk to people who like going to Monticello, who think of Mr. Jefferson and then think about Monticello. I think about people . . .
LAMB: Here's Montibello. Where's that?
KENNEDY: That was outside of Baltimore, wonderful place, Sam Smith, who defended Baltimore in 1815, built this wonderful villa. It disappeared in the suburban sprawl, but that's exactly what I mean. If you're interested in how Baltimore got defended and how Sam Smith managed to make a lot of millions of dollars in silver, then you want to go to Montibello. I'm for people who like grounding general things in specific, tangible things. I want people to go look at Latrobe's rooms in the national Capitol.
LAMB: Who is Latrobe?
KENNEDY: Benjamin Henry Latrobe was the superintendent of the key period of building the capitol of the United States, also put the porticoes on the White House. If you stand in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., four Latrobe buildings right within eye shot, right there, let alone elsewhere.
LAMB: Lafayette Park, right across from the White House.
LAMB: Four buildings. What are they?
KENNEDY: The church on your left, Decatur House on your right, which is the national trust house on the corner. The White House porticoes are sitting there, and if you can cock an eye toward the national Capitol, you're looking at Mr. Latrobe. Latrobe was the most accurate observer of human behavior that I encountered in the course of looking at all of this territory, more so than Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and he's a kind of a link to everybody because he as an architect who knew everybody, told us about everybody and had strong opinions about everybody.
LAMB: Let's jump very quickly -- did I gather that you are not as big a fan of Thomas Jefferson as some others are?
KENNEDY: I'm not as uncritical an admirer of everything Mr. Jefferson did as other people are, but on the other hand Mr. Jefferson is so huge.
LAMB: What's this?
KENNEDY: That's the Capitol of the state of Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson, like the University of Virginia, which is in my view the most beautiful construction that came from the human hand in the history of this country, the University of Virginia.
LAMB: Was he a good architect?
KENNEDY: Yes. He was a good almost everything, but he was not unflawed.
LAMB: You say nice things here about Aaron Burr.
KENNEDY: Yes, Aaron Burr is one of my heroes.
LAMB: Why? Isn't that abnormal?
KENNEDY: Yes, I suppose. Aaron Burr is a fellow who's had a bad press. You don't shoot the secretary of the treasury when you're vice president and get away with that gently, although Mr. Hamilton would have shot him if he had the opportunity.
LAMB: It was a duel.
KENNEDY: That's right. Aaron Burr was on bad terms with Thomas Jefferson, and that's not a good way to get a good press either. Aaron Burr, to his credit, proposed immediate emancipation of the slaves in 1787. Aaron Burr broke a tie in favor of continuing American commercial connections in support of Toussaint L'Ouverture in 1803. Aaron Burr was a kind of whimsical, humorous, cheerful character who probably was irresponsible in some ways but was by no means the deep-dyed villain that he's been depicted by everybody else except maybe Gore Vidal.
LAMB: Favorite Frenchman?
KENNEDY: I suppose Latrobe.
LAMB: Besides him.
KENNEDY: Mirabeau, Brissot, the Party of Hope, the people who tried to make something occur that was a beneficial change without violence.
LAMB: How would you define the French? Are there characteristics . . .
KENNEDY: Best in the country. Best in their country, French people are wonderful. I can't say that I like dead Frenchmen more than live ones, but there are certainly a bunch of dead Frenchmen in this book whom I find much better company than I do current French diplomacy.
LAMB: Really?
LAMB: Why?
KENNEDY: I think there's a kind of aspiration about the French at the turn of the 19th century, in the period described, a kind of absence of arrogance, a sense of the possibilities for all humankind in sharing in a common heritage which is in sharp contradistinction to some of the less admirable qualities of contemporary French culture, which I think is closed and vain.
LAMB: Where did the new French culture come from? Who created it?
KENNEDY: Who is responsible for that?
LAMB: Who is that one person?
KENNEDY: Maybe we are. I don't know. No, it's really that the kind of invidious urbanity which characterizes some aspects of Parisian French culture is not as inviting to me as those qualities of cosmopolitan generosity that we shared with them in what I think is our most wonderful period.
LAMB: How many times have you been to France?
KENNEDY: I've been to France enough times. I don't know, 10 times.
LAMB: Lots?
KENNEDY: Oh, sure, I suppose.
LAMB: Did you spend time in France for this book?
KENNEDY: Yes, because there's a fair amount of fresh research that could only be done in Paris. There's much more interchange between the people who led the intellectual life of the French Revolution and people here than most Americans have any reason to know because a lot of those folks came here -- Talleyrand, Brissot, Valmy, lots of people.
LAMB: Tell me about Lafayette because I come from this town.
KENNEDY: Which Lafayette do you come from?
LAMB: Indiana. There are a bunch of them -- Lafayette, California, Louisiana.
KENNEDY: There are Fayettes and Lafayettes. I think there are 30 of them, when last counted. Lafayette's one of those guys that made a great deal out of good will and being exceedingly sexy and handsome. He was not terribly bright. He was a noble soul with a poor grasp not on reality so much as possibility or what you could actually achieve. But the nobility is the center point of it, and he had a tremendous sense of the self-dramatizing possibilities of public life. He looked wonderful on a horse; he was very good in front of a crowd ...
LAMB: Is that why we see him on a horse all the time?
KENNEDY: I think so, probably.
LAMB: Why do we name all these towns after him?
KENNEDY: Because he represented France at its most heroic to us. He also of course was aristocratic; he wasn't just some guy off the street leading a revolution. He was involved in a series of revolutions, but he was always a Marquis. We sort of liked that. Our snobbish sense is drawn to that kind of thing. Lafayette had the great virtue of coming back 50 years after his chief exploits and making a two-year tour. It's like Sarah Bernhardt's last tour. It was Lafayette's last tour. He went everyplace. You cannot find a place in Lafayette -- maybe Lafayette, Indiana, but Lafayette, Kentucky. He went anywhere that people would gather to lift a glass and celebrate the achievements of the grand old men. If you give it two years, that has not just Bruce Springsteen doing a two-nighter, that's a thoroughgoing desire to make an impression. He succeeded.
LAMB: Napoleon?
KENNEDY: Gosh, Napoleon is like Gorbachev. Napoleon is one of those people who can only emerge in a time when there is volcanic disruption of the old order and there is a place for adventurers. That isn't like Gorbachev because Gorbachev emerges from a bureaucracy. Napoleon is an imp of darkness in my view. He's one of those people that comes out when the land shifts and the sulphur comes out of the ground and volcanoes erupt. You get Napoleon, get somebody like that never would have made a great career in the old regime. I doubt very much that he would have had a successful career in the United States.
LAMB: Are there things right in front of our eyes that we don't realize are French?
KENNEDY: Sure, the New York City Hall. Just pick the most beautiful building in the city of New York, without any question, if you can kind of blow away the fumes of the Brooklyn Bridge or arrive on a Sunday morning. You want to know what Neoclassical America was like in the 1790s with French guidance, look at that extraordinary French building sitting down there with its glassiness, its coolness, its order, its repose, and just remember that all of lower Broadway looked like that once, designed by French architects.
LAMB: Did L'Enfant do a good job with this city?
KENNEDY: Sure, he did a great job with this city. He would have done an even greater job with the Capitol if he had finished its design. One of the things that's nice to know is that if you look up there, that immense central rotunda, which nobody knows what to do with, that's a L'Enfant idea. It was going to be the assembly of the people. We have Congress and the Senate and the Supreme Court, but that was the place for all the rest of us to raise our flags and make speeches. That's what that great hole in the center of the Capitol is for. That's L'Enfant's dream of an assemblage of the American people, a kind of a revolutionary idea.
LAMB: Of all the people that you have written about in this book, both American and French, who is your favorite character?
KENNEDY: I've got to go back to a good storyteller. I like memoirs and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect, left us memoirs, stories about people. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, everybody. He knew them all and he told us about them all in piquant ways that could help us relate to them as if we talked to them yesterday.
LAMB: Who is your favorite American?
KENNEDY: Probably Alexander Hamilton, I would suppose -- maybe Thomas Jefferson, but everybody's favorite is Thomas Jefferson, so I've got to find another friend to make friends with.
LAMB: What do you especially like about Alexander Hamilton?
KENNEDY: Guts, courage, a determination to leave the world better than what it was when he found it.
LAMB: "Orders From France", Roger G. Kennedy, our guest. He is currently director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington. Thank you for your time, sir.

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